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March to Kennedy Lake

We left the east bay at 4am sharp headed for Tuolumne county in the area of the Sonora pass.

We rolled up in Jake’s diesel Lariat to the Kennedy Meadows lodge and trail head just before 8am tuesday. The sun peeks over the mountains and reaches the valley floor first to warm the meadow, the cabins and the lodge. From the first feel of it we were in for one helluva scorcher.

My pack came in at a whopping 43 pounds to which the more experienced hiker, my friend remarked, “You’re basically carrying 2 packs. You want your pack to weigh around 25 pounds.” “You need to get rid of the cans, the binoculars, the electronics, canned food, the extra shoes, extra clothes, and extra crap. You need freeze dried food, a collapsible cup, water filtration, fresh sox and underwear. You need to prioritize.” At the last minute he had asked me if I had trekking poles and it was only in a fit of final preparedness that I dashed to grab some. Do I need one or two? Well he said poles so I should get 2 and facing the climb in elevation, the switchbacks, the rocks, the bog and more the trekking poles ended up being possibly the most important tool of the hike.

It was early, we had energy, we made good progress to start and gradually as you pass the larger of the meadows you get the first bit of hills and then a series of ascents up some rough rock stairs. At this point I had 43 pounds basically hanging off of my shoulders when it should have been better strapped to my waist to distribute the weight. Let the suffering begin, was I taught this as a child? I did get periodic relief from the pack by either pulling the shoulder straps forward and marching like that or reaching my arms back over my head and lifting the pack upwards with my triceps. I switched from that to heavy reliance on the trekking poles which really bring your arms and upper body into the action. I just kept switching these practices which kept me going.

After the series of rough mountain staircases as you approach the final climb to Relief Reservoir the trail cuts off and up to the left with an arrow pointing upwards on a vertically spelled out top to bottom “Kennedy Lake” trail sign.

Being off on an entirely new trail brought a great sense of the goodness that potentially lied ahead. After a series of grueling switchbacks and eating dust we crossed the bridge over Kennedy creek which is a decent volume at this point creating rapids and beautiful falls. From there, the path continues on the north side of Kennedy creek for about 5 miles until you get to the rich grassy bogs you have to cross to get to the lake. The bogs are possibly the most difficult aspect of the hike with water seeping out of the spongey earth and even bursting forward into streams. You have to scan out each step to avoid completely submerging your boots in the water or the mud just swallowing up your foot. Wet feet are a total game changer in the hiking game, one learns this pretty quickly. 

At this point my level of dread and fatigue were immensely high. I was just following Jake, I just cleared my mind and I trusted and followed his footsteps. I felt like I was just shedding past negativity. What I was practicing on this trip was not complaining about anything and just seeing everything in a better light. 

We approached from the west side of the lake, the lower elevation to see the lake nestled up against what rises to Kennedy peak. We approached on the north side of the lake which has gradual inclines and high desert brush with a few cottonwoods. We had hiked almost 8 miles with a 1500 foot elevation climb in about 4 hours (due to my 43 pound pack). We found our perfect campsite in a ring of junipers about 100 feet off the lake. We were greeted by a couple marmots almost immediately that came to check us out. When Jake pulled out his tuna lunch the marmot came within 10 feet and stood on his back feet and without flinching seemed to be asking for his share. We said “alright buddy whats up, this food is not for you, carry on”. I tossed a couple pebbles in his direction and he didn’t so much as flinch, stared at us for another 30 seconds and was off. We did not see him even once again the rest of the trip. I said “he was just the welcoming committee, he went and told the others ‘we got some city slickers down there, stay clear for a couple of days’”

We went down to the east end of the lake where Kennedy Creek feeds in and the brown and golden trout were biting almost every cast for a bit there. They were pretty small so it was just catch & release but they were beautiful fish. Putting your legs in the ice cold water is instant cold therapy for your aching feet, ankles, calves, knees, quads, hammies, you name it you can go as far in a you like, you could even make it a mikvah. What this reminds me of is that the mountain provides the remedy for what ails you. 

I then reclined at the campsite back resting on a log with a full view of the lake and just sort of slipped into what could only be described as an incredible sense of well being, stillness and contentment. It made me realize that this is about exhausting yourself and getting out to a place where you just welcome that exhaustion and that exhaustion connects you with the earth and so you lie on the earth and that is where you make your bed. A small fire at dusk and when you’re out here you basically sleep when it gets dark.

Likewise you rise at the sign of first light.

Then for one of the most satisfying things you can do out here for comfort is pulling out the little single burner with your fuel can and little pot and boiling water for coffee.

I sat there like my name was Zen Moriarty, just happy as a fucking lark, not a worry in the world. How on earth could this be so satisfying. It must be the work you put in then the reward you receive. When you are in the middle of the grueling hike you can get a bit delusional, philosophical, however you want to put it. At one point I exclaimed “WE ARE WORKING WITH A REWARD BASED SYSTEM HERE, THAT IS OUR BELIEF”. Was that my mantra? It may as well have been because that lesson stuck with me the whole trip.

Day 2 we needed to head out from camp with rubbery legs to reach another higher elevation, look for the source of Kennedy creek, and get near some of the snow remaining from the light snow pack this year. We tried to stick to the higher elevation on the mountainside as we made our way so as to steer clear of the boggy grasslands that feed the creek and lake. Off trail hiking can be extremely difficult and between the dried brush cutting your legs and the mountainside that is just crushed rock sliding down your greatest desire becomes just to get to solid level ground and get the dust and rocks out of your shoes. After we tortured ourselves a bit longer we rediscovered the trail and found most of the hike to be quite easy. It was nice to see the lake from the other side at the higher elevation and we wondered what it was like for people to hike in from this side and see the lake, it was just a jewel in the bottom of the valley.

The temps were reaching 100 and more down in the Central Valley of northern California and on day one up here it just felt like we were closer to the sun. My main source of dread was that we were just gonna get baked by the sun with less and less trees the higher we got. Luckily some clouds rolled in on day 2 and I thought wow what a revelation I forgot the mercy of the clouds. I then sang the praises of the clouds for awhile, in a non anthropomorphic way of course. I came across a beautifully rich patch of grass aside the creek and upon further inspection found a fresh mountain spring to drink straight from. We discovered the next upper valley which was peppered with snow banks all about. We were up at close to 9,000 feet elevation and Kennedy Lake is 7,800 feet elevation so there was snow up here and more cloud cover. This valley seemed to be the source of Kennedy Creek but across the valley towards the higher elevation is where the snow begins to melt and make the first drops of water, amazing. We headed back down for lunch.

The descent was reminiscent of any party coming through the mountains and being passed the worst of it. I took that feeling and ran with it. The clouds at this point had begun to pepper the entire sky which was a great change of scenery because the lighting in the valley was completely different. Still I was amazed at the mercy of the clouds. 

Back at camp we hit the fishing spot again which was hit or miss depending on what time you went down there. Clouds kept rolling in until we spotted a dark gray and blackening front pressing over the mountain range to the north and east of us.

The forecast had been all clear and we had postponed the trip several weeks in a row due to late season snowstorms. It had literally snowed a week before and then reached 80 degrees Wednesday. Then back at camp we started to feel the first raindrops. Downsizing my pack before I left I had taken out my rain flap and only at the last minute put it back with my tent roll because I didn’t want to throw it out and I didn’t want to store it away from the tent. Its these small choices that have a big impact later. Jake did not have his rain flap so he rolled up his gear and tent and put it in my tent to keep it all dry. The clouds ominously rolled in and the valley slowly got darker and darker until the sky was illuminated with a huge bright flash right into Kennedy peak and within a few seconds at most the most wicked crash of thunder I have ever heard. I have never heard thunder in the mountains this close and it sounded as if the heavens were actually shaking the mountains. It may be the acoustics of these majestic clouds, how close they are to the mountain and the thunder reverberating from off of the granite and jagged mountain peaks. There is no sound like it in the world. It must be heard. I had a creeping sense of fear and dread perhaps rightfully so as a witness to the majesty before me and the sense that we may have underestimated, the sense that we may actually be in trouble. I searched for some sense in Jake as to whether he thought we were in trouble. When the next lightning bolt hit the valley I realized we were in a small circle of trees on a pretty naked hillside, fairly exposed.

Good thing my legs had been too cashed out to climb Kennedy Peak which was the plan because if we did we would have been reaching the peak right at the lightning storm. By 5pm there was a break in the rain and Jake made the call to head out. Clouds had enveloped the mountains so we were basically chasing the setting sun off in the horizon peeking under the clouds. We definitely were under the clock, we had to get out by dark.

Our legs were toast, the sun was going down, I was not sure I could make it but my only choice was to oblige, hastily pack my shit, leave no trace, and march out. I packed my headlamp and flashlight handy in case we were still in the mountains after dark. We then went on to vocally enumerate the ways in which this was in fact the best possible outcome for us to march out in this cool weather as opposed to the blazing sun tomorrow morning. I felt the extreme satisfaction in knowing this place and knowing the way here and exactly what it takes to get here. I took further note of all of the features in the land and changes in topography as we headed out through the bog, desert brush, rolling meadow, light forest, switchbacks, first bridge, second bridge, mountain stairs. I told myself if I can remember it then I can master it. Jake mentioned that the lodge may be open if we make it back for a hot meal and a cold beer, more confirmation that we’re working with a reward based system. Somewhere near where the forest thickens up along Kennedy Creek before you get to the bridge the air is just moist enough where the mosquitoes absolutely thrive. What began as a minor nuisance soon became a full on assault and we broke into a run. We had no ability to do so but we ran for 2 miles from those mosquitoes and at about 9pm we saw the lights from the lodge. The gal said they were closing but we begged her to serve us and we had the best fresh burgers ever from the cattle they have there with a cold IPA. As we ate we thanked our server and we thanked the mosquitoes for chasing us out so we could make it in time for this meal. In fact come to think about it we were thankful and grateful at that point for just about everything, hardship and all. 

2 Comments

  1. Lynne July 5, 2021

    That hike , whether on foot or horseback is not for the faint at heart. It is tough but we’ll worth going at least once. Awesome experience for mind and body

    • Nathan Duffy July 11, 2021

      Thanks Lynne, its definitely a stepping stone for me as we just hiked Hyatt Lake which exceeded the difficulty at least threefold, the heat was record breaking and the trembler and aftershocks rolling in from Gardnerville, NV on the hike in Wednesday reminded us Who was in charge.

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